The worsening economy took its toll on workers in January as the nation's payrolls shed 598,000 jobs, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

The storm of layoffs has become torrential. About half of the 3.6 million job losses since the recession started in December 2007 occurred during the last three months.

Caught in the flood was Dennis Hobbs, 57, who lost his job last month at Philadelphia's Penn Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Co. on Hunting Park Avenue. He was one of about 125 employees let go, he said.

"I'm extremely nervous," said Hobbs, of the Port Richmond neighborhood in Philadelphia. Health insurance worries him. Picking up payments for the company plan that covered him and his wife would cost $800 a month. His unemployment check is $241 a week.

With 11.6 million unemployed out of the nation's workforce of 153.7 million, the official unemployment rate rose to 7.6 percent - higher than most estimates.

Urging Congress to wrap up its work on the economic-stimulus package, President Obama pointed to yesterday's report.

"It is an urgent and growing crisis that can only be fully understood through the unseen stories that lie underneath each and every one of those 600,000 jobs that were lost this month," he said.

Some of the stories were told at the Arch Street United Methodist Church, where the Philadelphia Unemployment Project sponsored a recession resource fair.

Community organizations offered credit counseling, health insurance, and workshops on preventing foreclosures, as well as assistance with heating and food. Job counseling also was available.

"You've got to put your pride in your pocket and don't worry about where the help is coming from," said Keith Bradford, 45, of Cheltenham Township.

The father of two lost his job as an insurance operations manager at Prudential Insurance of America Inc. in Horsham on Jan. 20. He already is beginning training as a project manager at Penn State University's Abington campus.

Last month's cuts came in almost all categories. With 111,000 jobs lost in January, unemployment in construction is now 18.2 percent, up from 11 percent a year ago.

Manufacturing lost 207,000 jobs, and professional and business-services jobs declined by 121,000.

Even though 54,000 jobs were added in health care and education, unemployment in "eds and meds" is creeping up because the sector is not robust enough to absorb the available workers.

Even though the official unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, some economists put the number at 13.9 percent, factoring in workers who want a job but are too discouraged to look, or who must work part-time because they can't get a full-time job.

Next month, Jean Marie McGuire, 39, of Medford, will be part of that statistic.

On Wednesday night, McGuire's boss at UPS's Lawnside facility called her and 18 coworkers into a conference room and told them their workweek would be cut by one day, effective later this month.

"I thought my job was secure in this economy," McGuire said. "I'm confused. I'm shocked."

"It's $500 a month for me," said McGuire, a nine-year UPS employee who has worked full-time for two years. She worries that she and her son, 10, who are now in a lease-purchase arrangement to buy their house, will have to move. "I'll have to get another job," she said.

That won't be easy.

The average length of unemployment is now 19.8 weeks, up from 17.5 weeks a year ago, the Labor Department report said. More than one in five individuals who lose their jobs are still not working six months later.

Among them is John Wilcox, 42, who sat listening to the speakers at the Arch Street church, his head buried in his hands.

Wilcox, who came wearing a tie and looking for work, has been unemployed since last March, when he lost a job as a security guard. At the time, he was living in a homeless shelter where he hoped the staff could watch his sleeping daughter while he worked the overnight shift.

But they didn't, he said, so he had to quit.

Philadelphia Unemployment Project workers encouraged him to apply for unemployment benefits - they said he had a chance.

"I feel lighter, happier now," he said later.

That was part of the goal of the session, attended by hundreds.

"You are not alone with what's going on in our world," volunteer Deborah Jackson-Smith told the group.

A mother of two, Jackson-Smith, 53, said she went from three part-time jobs, including her own cleaning business, to none, and is now fighting to save her Germantown home from foreclosure.

"You don't want to wake up," she said. "You don't know what to do. You don't know what to tell your children. But there is help."

Jackson-Smith said she's looking for work, but spends her days volunteering for the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, where, she said, she has found support.

Her message resonated with Teikeita Hopkins, 29, who lost her temporary office job in April. "I've been there," she said. "There are times you just don't want to get out of bed."

Hopkins, of North Philadelphia, thinks she has landed a security-guard job - background checks need to be completed. "You get up," she said, "and you try and you try and you try."